How to Prepare Garden Soil?

Written by Samantha Agostino

 In This Article:

Rock garden

Whether just starting a new gardening venture or readying your existing beds for the next growing season, you'll want to evaluate and prepare your soil to ensure a nutrient-rich home for growing healthy and happy plants. And while many experienced gardeners would agree that soil preparation may be challenging, you'll want to get it right. Your bountiful harvest depends on it!

Healthy soil, with its structure and nutrient flow protected, is the source from which all good things grow. The more nutritious it is, the fewer pesticides and fertilizers you'll need, and the better your garden will grow.

Below, we will discuss how to prepare your garden soil for the plants you hope to grow. Get your green thumb ready to bring your garden cornucopia to life!

How Does Healthy Soil Look?

Healthy garden soil supports the root systems of plants, providing access to water, nutrients, and air. Good soil will be neither too loose nor too dense, draining quickly yet retaining the appropriate moisture level for your specific plants. The soil will be alive with living organisms, some of which you should be able to see. Bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and other beneficial microorganisms help fertilize and maintain soil quality. And the upper layer, or topsoil, should be rich in humus, a soft, dark substance resulting from decaying materials such as grass clippings, leaves, ground bark, and compost. Next, you'll want to determine the texture and pH of your soil, so essential to plant health, keeping in mind the assortment of plants you plan to grow.

The soil will be alive with living organisms, some of which you should be able to see. Bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and other beneficial microorganisms help fertilize and maintain soil quality. And the upper layer, or topsoil, should be rich in humus, a soft, dark substance resulting from decaying materials such as grass clippings, leaves, ground bark, and compost.

Next, you'll want to determine the texture and pH of your soil, so essential to plant health, keeping in mind the assortment of plants you plan to grow.

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How do you determine soil texture?

Soil Texture

All soil types contain mineral particles and different amounts of air, water, and organic matter, depending on the natural breakdown of rock across the local terrain. The shape and size of these particles will determine the soil texture. Here's how you can evaluate the soil in your garden:
Step 1 - Soak a small area in your garden and let it dry for a day.
Step 2 - Scoop a small handful of soil into your hand and squeeze it tightly.
Step 3 - Now evaluate the lump of compressed soil you're holding.

Characteristics to consider:

  • If it has a slippery feel to the soil, and you've been able to form a tight ball, it's clay soil.
  • If the ball of soil in your hand feels gritty and crumbles easily instead of holding its shape when you open your hand, it's sandy soil.
  • If the soil feels floury and wet, with more of a soapy than a sticky feel, it's silt soil.
  • If the soil is slightly crumbly but holds its shape like a softball, it's loamy soil.

Generally, loam is considered the ideal soil for most garden plants as it contains a balanced blend of all three mineral particles (sand, silt, and clay) and is rich in humus.

Once you identify the soil texture in your garden, consider the selection of plants you hope to grow and their ideal soil type. Fortunately, you can amend the soil in your garden accordingly by adding organic matter to make your soil more loam-like, improving its structure. Read on for a listing of soil amendments you can utilize to meet your specific gardening needs.

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Types of Soil Amendments

Soil Amendments

Compost
Compost results from piling up organic residues such as leaves, grass clippings, garden trimmings, and even salad leftovers from your dinner plate in a contained section of your yard. Over time, this compost pile breaks down into a fine compound, amazingly nutritious for your plants. It will fertilize your plants, improve your soil, and lighten the load at landfills too! You can make your own compost or purchase it from any nursery nearby.

Wood
Products Ground bark can help separate the fine clay particles in clay soil to reduce the clumping and allow some air. However, when bark decomposes, it will take the nitrogen out of the soil. So, if you decide to add ground bark, add nitrogen to compensate.
Manure
Manure is a gardener's friend. Rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, it also contains micronutrients that promote plant growth. Composted cow manure is the most commonly used as it is readily available and perfectly balanced with essential nutrients.

Rule of (Green) Thumb: Only use manure that has been composted for at least one year because fresh animal waste can harm plant roots.

How to Amend Your Garden Soil:

Soothing water feature

Step 1:
Thoroughly water the garden area and let it dry for 2-3 days.

Rule of (Green) Thumb: Avoid working on soil that is too dry or too wet.

Step 2: Dig a 10-12 inch hole in the soil, removing all the rocks and dirt clods.

Step 3: Add a small amount of a low-concentration fertilizer into the hole. Check the fertilizer container for directions on quantity and follow those instructions.

Step 4: Use a tiller or spading fork to mix the fertilizer into the soil.

Step 5: Once the amendments are appropriately mixed, level the soil bed using a rake, then water well. Rule of (Green) Thumb: Let your garden soil settle for a few days before you start planting.

How to Test the pH of Your Garden Soil:

Wildlife-friendly

Now that you have improved your soil by adding amendments, it's time to analyze the pH of your garden soil.

What is pH?

Your garden soil's pH (potential of hydrogen) specifies its acidic or alkaline (or basic) content. On a pH scale of 0-14, seven is neutral. A pH less than seven indicates acidity, and a pH above seven indicates alkalinity. Some plants will tolerate a wide range of pH levels. However, most plants prefer slightly acidic or neutral pH (like 6 to 7) because nutrients like phosphorus, calcium, nitrogen, and potassium easily dissolve in that environment. If the pH is lower or higher than in that range, it will restrict the nutrients available to the root system.

There are two ways to test your soil pH:
DIY Soil Test Kit
You can buy an electronic tester or a DIY soil test kit. Follow the kit's instructions to determine your soil's pH quickly. Both testing methods will give quick results.
Soil Analysis
If you're new to gardening, you might find it helpful to get your soil sample tested in a lab. As part of the service, they will provide you with a detailed pH and nutrient content report. If your soil pH level is very low (acidic), then you can correct it by adding an appropriate amount of lime to your soil. And if it is too high (alkaline), you can add powdered aluminum sulfate or sulfur. Also, you can choose plants for your garden that will quickly adapt and thrive at your soil's pH level.

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How to Check Your Soil Drainage :

Good drainage is a must-have for healthy plants. Poor drainage can cause water to remain in pore spaces and restrict air entry into the soil. Air is necessary for both the root system and soil-dwelling organisms. Generally, soil texture and a deep low-lying garden location can be the reason behind poor drainage. Also, if your garden area sees a lot of walking or machinery traffic, you can have issues with drainage.

Here's how you can determine your soil drainage:
Dig an 8-12 inch wide and 12-inch deep hole in your garden and fill it with water. Let it drain, and after 12 hours, fill it again.
If the soil drains well, the water from the second filling should be gone in 2-3 hours. If it takes longer, then you need to improve the soil drainage.
The best way to improve your drainage is to incorporate more organic matter. You can also create raised beds or regrade the area with better soil. Just be sure to set your garden up to allow excess water to drain away quickly.

Final Thoughts

The more attention you pay to your soil, the better your foundation for the plants in your garden. Preparing good soil is not difficult; it just takes some care. By adding organic matter, mulching it, and taking care of the few other details mentioned above, you can create a nutrient-rich, picture-perfect garden for all your green beauties to enjoy! Download the Flora App for detailed guides on how to prepare your garden soil and don't forget to order your Flora Sensor

Download the Flora App for detailed guides on how to care for your specific plants & don't forget to order your Flora Sensor!

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